Thursday, September 24, 2009

Seven Uncles and One Missing

I think we should call this The Owens Chronicle, because it sounds like a spy movie starring Matt Damon. But Lane Dexter, who lives way up in the mountains while he awaits the collapse of civilization, wants to call it Fog Hospital. Further suggestions are welcome.

When I grew up I had a lot of uncles, seven and one missing. I knew I had an abundance of uncles, but I had a high opinion of my own worth and felt that I deserved all those uncles. It was like a collection -- except for the missing uncle, number eight, and that bothered me.

We'll start at the beginning on my mother's side. Uncle Ted's real name was Ambrose Cuny. He had an enormous nose. Otherwise he was boring. He was my Mom's oldest brother, which earned him a certain amount of respect, and he only lived a few miles from our house, on Prairie Avenue in Evanston. But we didn't visit very often -- because he was boring, I guess.

Uncle Ted was a high-flying stock investor until the crash of 1929 -- as the family story went. After the crash, he still had a few dollars left and figured the market was at the bottom, so he doubled down and lost every penny. After that he was a defeated man and took a back office job somewhere in downtown Chicago.

The next uncle was Uncle Chuck. He was cool, tall and bony and robust. Uncle Chuck had six kids and they lived on the South Side of Chicago and we lived on the North Side. It was a long drive to see them and we didn't go too often, but between their six kids and our five, we could raise a riot and we loved going there. Uncle Chuck had a job at United Airlines in the credit department. He worked at Midway Field, the older, smaller South Side airport.

Years later he was transferred to O'Hare Airport on the northside of Chicago, so the family moved to Arlington Heights, a kind of meaningless suburban place full of tract homes. It was a nicer neighborhood, but Uncle Chuck's new house wasn't as cool as going to the South Side.

Uncle Jerry was a high school teacher. He was earnest and congenial, but, unfortunately, he was married to Aunt Grace. One year Aunt Grace gave me a very nice ballpoint pen for Christmas -- that's how lame she was -- you give kids toys for Christmas, for Pete's sake.

But it wasn't Uncle Jerry's fault, and many years later, after Aunt Grace died and when it no longer mattered, he told me about his younger days and the love of his life, the woman he wanted to marry, but could not. It was a sweet story, and I thought better of him after that.

Uncle Ralph was the youngest of four brothers and lived very near to us. He was close to my Mom and always coming over to the house. Relatives didn't knock when they came, they just opened the door and peaked their heads and said hi -- that was our custom. Uncle Ralph would peak his head in -- his nose was almost as big as Uncle Ted's, but he always smiled and we liked him the best. My dog would go crazy whenever Uncle Ralph came over -- dogs, small children, everybody liked Uncle Ralph.

He was a milkman. He didn't finish high school or have a white collar job like my other uncles. My Mom would say he's just a milkman. Even when I was seven years old, I heard that dismissal "just a milkman," and I thought Mom was mean to say it that way. We all loved Uncle Ralph. He never married. He drank a lot and he died in his mid-fifties.

On my father's side, I had Uncle Earl. If you didn't have an Uncle Earl when you grew up, then you missed out. Uncle Earl had a good job at Sears and a pencil mustache. He smoked cigars and he liked to frighten small children in the most delicious way.

My folks would have Uncle Earl and Aunt Mary over to play cards sometimes, and Uncle Earl would get mad if he lost and start cussing, and stink the house up with his cigar. He was really cool.

My next three uncles, all on my father's side, were down in St. Louis, where my Dad grew up.

First was Uncle Dick. Uncle Dick was detached from the family mayhem, like a silent partner to my full-busomed Aunt Florence. As a child, I felt that Uncle Dick might possibly be interesting -- his aloof character had some appeal.

In any event, Uncle Dick could not stand out like Uncle Bob -- absolutely the most fun of all my uncles. He had a nickname for everybody and he called me Uncle Fud. And he drank Pepsi-Cola for breakfast.

That was so wicked. I mean, my Mom let me have one Coke per week and no more, and there was Uncle Bob having a Pepsi every morning just because he wanted to.

He also kept a pitcher of Manhattans in the frig and he lived to be 93 -- a loud and boisterous man who embarrassed his children.

We should all embarrass our children and be more like Uncle Bob. A child is lucky to have an uncle like that.

That adds up to seven uncles, but there was still one missing -- Uncle Skip. When our family drove down to St. Louis to see our relatives, we didn't go over to Uncle Skip's house. He was my Dad's older brother.

They never explained that me, but I didn't like it, and I felt, as a reasonably self-centered child, that I had EIGHT uncles and I was entitled to every single one of them.

But nothing was said. My Dad and Uncle Skip just didn't get along. There wasn't a feud or bad blood or anything like that, and they did speak to each other -- but rarely.

Years later, after Dad and Uncle Skip were both dead, my Aunt Mary gave me the background about how things were when they were growing up, but mainly, she said, the two brothers were just so different from each other.

So there was really no breach to heal, it was just the way two brothers worked things out.

Anyway, when my son was born, I named him Eugene -- which was Uncle Skip's real name. I did that just so I could get the missing uncle back in my life.

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